George H Corey Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus
Interviewed on December 13, 1977
[This transcript was created at the time of the interview and may contain errors and omissions]
Professor Robert Whitney
Tape #1, December 13, 1977
Taped in his office, Merrill Science Center
Interviewer: Horace W. Hewlett
For: Amherst College
HWH: Bob, I noticed that you did both your undergraduate and graduate work at Minnesota, and if I’m not wrong, you graduated from Minnesota at age 18; and had your Ph.D. by age 21.
Whitney: No, my doctoral degree was conferred on my 22nd birthday. That was the middle of the summer. I didn’t quite finish my thesis by the twentieth of June.
HWH: I think that’s remarkable. Then you taught, I believe, at Harvard, for a couple of years.
Whitney: For two years. I had a post-doctoral assistantship in the Physics Department at Minnesota with Professor John Tate the year after I got my Ph.D. in 1927, and then from 1928 to 1930 I was a non-faculty instructor in Organic Chemistry at Harvard.
HWH: You came here in 1930 and I believe you retired in 1971. So that’s pretty remarkable: 41 years; and except for sabbaticals and leaves, war and so on, all of them at Amherst. I was curious about when you decided on a career in Chemistry.
Whitney: Oh I know exactly when I did that. I was in 9th grade. I was taking a course in general science and there was a young instructor, a lady who had just received her degree in biology at the University of Minnesota, and she was teaching High School General Science. One day she took a tripod and put a great big evaporating dish on it, with a flame underneath. She warmed up some water and put in it some litmus solution. Then she poured some of this into a beaker and held it up so you could see it; it was a dull color. She added some hydrochloric acid to it and it turned a bright red. Then she passed this around for us to taste, which is very bad chemical technique. We tasted it and obviously it tasted sour; it was O.K. Then she took another beaker and put some of this solution into it and poured in some sodium hydroxide and it turned a bright blue in the glass beaker. With the sun shining on it, it was very pretty. She passed that around for us to taste; and it tasted appropriately soapy. She knew what she was doing. It did no harm to us; however, the first rule in a chemistry laboratory is never to taste anything, but it’s more honored in the breach than the observance. Then she poured the two together until the color had just reached the dull neutral color that she had had when she started. She then put it into the big evaporating dish, set the burner under it to evaporate it and went off to other things. Shortly, the water was all gone and there were some little cubical crystals in the bottom of this evaporating dish. She passed those around for us to taste. They tasted salty. I thought, well if she can do that with chemistry, why, chemistry is for me.
HWH: And you say you were in 9th Grade?
Whitney: Yes, I was twelve years old.
HWH: When you came to Amherst, I think the entire department consisted of Professors Howard Doughty, Arthur Hopkins, and Ralph Beebe-- aside from whatever assistants, as you just mentioned, might have been on hand. I made a very haphazard check: since the beginning of the College I found that there had been only about 53 members of the Chemistry Department over 150 years-plus. Most of those were here on an appointment of only a year or two years at most. So there have really been only about 25 long-time members of the Department and that includes such people as Edward Hitchcock, President of Amherst 1845-54, who was professor of chemistry and natural history, 1825-1845, then professor of natural theology and geology, 1845-64; and Professor Charles Upham Shepard of the Amherst Class of 1824 who had the same title from 1846 to 1877. I just wonder what thoughts you may have on the growth of the Chemistry Department from four when you arrived, to about nine, I believe it is now, full-time. There’s really no way of saying when REAL chemistry began being taught at the College, but it strikes me that it probably wasn’t until after the turn of the Century.
Whitney: Well, from my recollection of hearing Professors Doughty and Hopkins talking about the old days, I would guess that Professor Harris (“Dorwal” Harris-- ”Dorwal” being the Anglo-Saxon name for devil, I believe) of the Amherst Class of 1855, was the first genuine chemist. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Göttingen in 1859 and taught at Amherst from 1868-1907. Professor Hopkins had earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University in 1893. I believe that Professor Doughty came in 1907.
HWH: That’s correct. Professor Hopkins came in 1894. He was the Class of ‘85 at Amherst.
Whitney: Now Professor Doughty had an unusual background for chemistry, and I think a very good one for what he was to do at Amherst. He had never received a Bachelor’s degree. He went to Johns Hopkins and studied electrical engineering and received a Certificate of Proficiency, I think it was called, in electrical engineering. Then the family fortunes required his working. He went and worked for his uncle for seven years in the lumber business. At that point, in some way he became interested in chemistry and he went to Johns Hopkins and they admitted him as a candidate for the Ph.D. degree. He probably worked with Ira Remsen, who was the great man in chemistry and the co-discoverer of saccharin, and a very inspiring teacher in all.
When Doughty received his Ph.D. he was offered a number of very interesting and important jobs. And a great admirer and friend of his was Professor W. A. Noyes, Sr. (there are two famous Noyeses in the same family, father and son); the senior Noyes was at the University of Illinois at the time and a big figure in the American Chemical Society. He wanted Professor Doughty to work for him in some connection; I think that he wanted him to become editor of one of the chemical journals.
I don’t know the circumstances of his coming to Amherst, but when he came Professor Hopkins was chairman of the Department. There had been three members of the department since 1903. Professor Hopkins had continued some research after he came to Amherst and Professor Doughty had quite an interest in chemical research and in applied chemistry. Later, many years later, when I was at Oxford, in 1960-61, Professor Waters, professor of Organic Chemistry at Oxford and a very distinguished authority on free radicals in organic chemistry, when he heard I was from Amherst, inquired about Doughty and said that one of his papers of the early ‘twenties had been a real landmark in the history of free radical chemistry.
HWH: No relation, I presume.
Whitney: No “Waters” relation. (Laughter) No, just soulmates.
HWH: Was Hoppy doing any kind of sophisticated research in this period?
Whitney: Well, he was an analytic and inorganic chemist, and off and on he kept experiments going. To the best of my knowledge he never published a paper in what I would call chemistry, although he liked to putter in his lab. However, he was a great scholar in the history of alchemy, and his book Alchemy, the Child of Greek Philosophy was ultimately published by the Columbia University Press in the l930s. On sabbatic leaves, I know he went to the Middle East to look up sources, and there is a story about his having been shipwrecked, together with his famous wife, Margery, somewhere in the mouth of the Nile and rescued from a small island.
HWH: Professor Doughty, from what you said about the comments of Professor Waters over in England, apparently was making a name for himself.
Whitney: Well it was leisurely research. But he worked at it. I remember when I first came he spent quite a bit of time in his lab, working with his own hands. During the Meiklejohn period, he had had a research assistant. Meiklejohn brought in George Scatchard to replace John Zinn, who he felt was not enough of a researcher. George Scatchard was a young Amherst alumnus, who later made a brilliant name for himself at M.I.T. He had a research assistant and Meiklejohn granted the same privilege to other members of the department at times.
HWH: Were any students involved?
Whitney: Yes, honors work in chemistry had started before I came to Amherst in 1930. Before that time Honors was strictly extra curricular; that is, a full five-course program was required in addition to research. I know of several people, the most notable being Paul D. Bartlett ‘28 who did substantial undergraduate research in the l920s. There were seven or eight others
HWH: In talking with Harold Plough, he attributed the advance in research at Amherst College really to the Chemistry Department. He felt that Chemistry was always the leader-- above biology, above physics. Were you at all aware of that when you came, any difference in research in the various departments?
Whitney: Well, when I came Professor Plough was a very active researcher in Biology, and I thought of the biology department as a strong department. Professor Glaser was a brilliant man and published papers of a more theoretical, reflective type. His experimental work was to confirm a growth theory of his and actually his handling of the statistics in that study of growth was not the greatest, but in those days very few people were statisticians. But Professor Doughty... well, I thought of the work in chemistry as being things that they did for the fun of it, while I thought of the biologists as being kind of scientists.
HWH: More serious. Well, of course you came here the year after the Moore Chemistry Lab was completed, and that must have seemed like a palace, though you had come from Harvard.
Whitney: Well I suffered through two moving periods. They were moving from Boylston Hall into the new Converse and Mallinckrodt Labs at Harvard the years that I was there and that was a madhouse. And then when I came to Amherst, they had moved into the Moore Laboratory. However, the moving process left some things to be desired. It was evidently a hectic time. They hired the Westcott Movers and they moved everything from the old building, Fayerweather, to the new one, put it in drawers and cupboards everywhere, and my office happened to be filled with a lot of dusty, obsolete, and broken equipment. I spent my first year at Amherst washing dishes.
HWH: But after it got straightened out, it must have been a considerable improvement.
Whitney: Oh, it was a wonderful laboratory and each member of the faculty had his own private research lab, and the teaching equipment was very modern. The stockroom, with Mr. Harmon J. Kelsey to manage it, was a special joy. He was a registered pharmacist and a good chemist-- also a very fine man.
Before I came, the fourth member of the department had been a temporary instructor. President Pease told me that the job was a one-year job at a certain salary. I had had several other irons in the fire, so I went back to Harvard and wrote Professor Doughty that I guessed I wasn’t interested because I was thinking of a job that would last longer than one year and provide a little more money. He wrote right back and said, “Don’t do anything drastic.” So he and President Pease shortly met my terms. Later Professor Doughty told me that I had had the great good fortune to sit at a table with Mike Smith, Professor Harry deForest Smith, at the Faculty Club dinner to which I was invited when I was being looked over. And Professor Smith had been very much impressed by my interest in Greek mythology and the Latin language, which we’d talked about; as a result of that, President Pease thought that I would be a suitable member of the Chemistry Department. President Pease, a classicist himself, was said to have relied on Mike Smith for many decisions.
HWH: I believe the first grant from outside that came to the College was in Biology, one that Professor Plough developed. And I think it was a Harkness, no Rockefeller grant. Did such grants come to chemistry, too, in those years?
Whitney: Ralph Beebe had grants from the National Research Council and American Philosophical Society a while after he came back from his sabbatic leave in the early ‘thirties. Earlier, Meiklejohn gave money to various teachers for research help, and this practice evidently continued after he left. In fact, the year I came, there was a research committee consisting of Professors Theodore Baird, Willard Thorp, and me. And this committee allocated a sum, which I believe was a total of $600, to the various scientists on the faculty who had applied for it.
HWH: It’s interesting that an economist and a humanist should join you in awarding research money for the sciences.
Whitney: Well, this was President Pease’s idea. He appointed the committee. I remember we awarded a handsome grant to Professor Goodale to study the flora and fauna of the Swift River Valley before it was flooded by the Quabbin Reservoir, and he was very anxious, and had a very interesting program, going around and making collections and observing things there, and Professor Baird said, in a very dead-pan manner, “Now, Professor Goodale, why on earth are you interested in this? It’s all going to be under water in the next few years.” And he sputtered.
HWH: Did Shorty have an answer?
Whitney: Oh no! He just sputtered. Mention should also be made of the Dupont Fund, a grant of $2,500 to $10,000 annually for many years, to be used as the Chemistry Department saw fit.
HWH: It seems to me that an inordinate number of Amherst students have gone on into graduate work in Chemistry and become distinguished. There’s George Scatchard, who you mentioned, probably one of the earliest of the modern chemists, and Paul Bartlett, Bill Johnson-- quite a number. Does any reason occur to you why more should have been coming from Amherst than, say, from other comparable colleges?
Whitney: I think that it was the tradition of research and of involving students in research. After 1930 there were honors students working continually. Before that time they were off and on, but after 1930 there were always people doing that and I think that interested them in it. I remember a survey that was made sometime before the Second World War showed that more papers in chemistry were published from Amherst than from any other liberal arts college in the country. And often, these papers would involve work by students.
HWH: That was probably quite unusual at that time.
HWH: I think Wesleyan had a reputation in the sciences. I don’t think Williams did. Oberlin...
Whitney: Oberlin did quite a lot. Williams, also, however, in the early period. Louis Fieser, the well-known Harvard organic chemist, was a Williams alumnus, and they had some good people in chemistry. Of course Professor Mears, the older Mears, (Amherst 1874 and Ph.D. Gottingen 1876) was at Williams, and back in the 19th Century he must have been quite a figure in New England chemistry, a highly respected person. I don’t know about his research but he may well have done some. His son, Brainerd Mears was still teaching there when I came in 1930. But he was not in the same league with his father.
HWH: But I believe at that time most of the significant research was being carried on in universities or in private laboratories, rather than liberal arts colleges. And so it seems, it’s just accepted at a place like Amherst and I presume at Wesleyan, too, that important research is going on all the time. And I would presume you would pick members of the department over your years-- you were Chairman, I know, for many years-- on the basis of the research they were doing. Would you try to find someone to fill in gaps or complement what other members of the Department were doing?
Whitney: Well, not in terms of research but in terms of their field, which of course would relate to it. When I first came to Amherst there was no real physical chemistry being taught. It was in the early days of modern physical chemistry. In fact at Harvard there was essentially no physical chemistry being taught. They had a course called that, but modern physical chemistry was just getting going in the ‘twenties so that one of the first concerns of Amherst was to get a professional physical chemist and the other three of us-- I mean Doughty, Beebe, and I-- filled in the gap. As a matter of fact Ralph Beebe is a physical chemist, but a colloid and surface chemist, and not a more theoretical type. When I say physical chemist, I mean a fairly theoretical type of physical chemist. The first person like that that we had was David Grahame who turned out to be a brilliantly successful experimental and theoretical physical chemist. But that conditioned our search for chemists for quite a long while. Then when Professor Doughty retired, we experimented with various organic chemists to fill his place.
HWH: This leads me to some other questions. This will be leading toward your impressions of chemistry today. You recall that the New Curriculum, the so-called New Curriculum, was introduced in 1947. Did you notice any result from the requirement in the sciences occurring in the chemistry department? Did any students become interested in chemistry who might not have? Was it a happy experience from the Chemistry Department’s standpoint?
Whitney: I would say that the general result of that curriculum was very good. We felt it was very good from the point of view of the Chemistry Department. We had had all through the ‘thirties a very large enrollment in our Freshman chemistry; it was a very elementary course and had to be because of the wide divergence in preparation of the students.
HWH: Yes, I was one of those. And George Low was my instructor.
Whitney: He became chief chemist of a big rayon works in Front Royal, Virginia. American Viscose I guess it was.
IHWH: I interrupted you. You were saying it was very elementary and due to the background...
Whitney: ...and very, very large enrollment. Professor Hopkins was a very genial man who was not inclined to be TOO fussy about things. So serious chemistry really began in the second year. Ralph Beebe was on the committee to study the new curriculum that President King appointed early in the Second World War and one of the things that was helpful was that the planning was going on all through the War, not only by people who were here in Amherst, but also by members of science departments who were on leave. I’m thinking particularly of John Hall in astronomy and Ted Soller in physics, who were at the M.I.T. radiation lab and would meet with other scientists from time to time during the War to talk about what might be done in the way of a joint science program. So when this started out, it had pretty much the general approval of people in the physical sciences.
The big stumbling block that some people feared was that there was no chemistry in the freshman year. And our colleagues in other colleges said, “Oh you’ve sold your department down the river. You won’t ever have any chemistry majors because what really counts is to get them when they’re freshmen.” We said, “Well, we’ve had lots of students in the freshman year and we’ve had to sort them out. The affinity for chemistry is not given to everyone and, besides, they need to know quite a lot of physics and the thing that differentiates, often, good and bad chemistry students is how well they can handle the amount of physics that is present in chemistry.” So the idea that everyone would have physics had two big advantages. One is that we could assume a knowledge of physics and so we didn’t have to teach them many rudimentary things.
The other one was that the students with no aptitude in the physical sciences didn’t come to Chemistry at all. As a result, our enrollment went down a bit, but our yield of good chemists went up. At that point our advanced courses became more suitable for people who were interested in chemistry.
HWH: That’s interesting. I know over the years Amherst has been known to produce Pre-Meds. Were you aware back in the ‘thirties, for example, of how many people who majored in chemistry went on in the profession or in the discipline, as opposed to those who went on to medical schools? Was it so, then, that we were producers of future doctors?
Whitney: Oh yes. In the ‘thirties a good many Amherst students went into medicine. I only gradually became aware of the pre-meds because Professor Plough was very much the advisor of the pre-medical students in the ‘thirties; he was very much interested in them and he taught Comparative Anatomy which at that time was the big course for pre-meds. Next was Professor Doughty who taught the elementary organic chemistry course and I helped him with that. And so the two of them were in the habit of writing most of the letters of recommendation for the pre-meds. I have records beginning in 1930 of the pre-medical students and I could look up and I could tell you exactly how many students who majored in chemistry (or biology) went to medical school.
An interesting thing that turned out of that information was the large number of people who graduated from Amherst and did NOT go directly to medical school, but later on did. I believe that there was a period of years where approximately half again as many Amherst alumni became doctors as went to medical school directly out of college. This was partly for economic reasons and partly because they couldn’t complete the pre-medical requirements; they became interested late in their college careers, I remember one brilliant chemistry honors student who was extremely hard up during the depression and he wanted to be a doctor. I don’t know what his ranking in honors was but it certainly was high. He went to Harvard and got a Master’s degree in Chemistry very easily. Then he had a job in a chemical industry where he got what was in those days a fantastic salary, saved his money, and then went back to Harvard Medical School. That was Charlie Averill.
HWH: Oh yes, I remember him. That was along about ‘38 or ‘39.
HWH: In recent years things have become quite specialized. We have had bio-chemistry and bio-physics-- were these subjects actually being taught, say, in the honors program even though they were not taught by course titles?
Whitney: There were some honors students in biology who had fairly strong chemical leanings, and Professor Glaser’s honors students occasionally would, perhaps, be what you could call bio-chemists, but in general there wasn’t very much collaboration, nor was there a formal course. It is my recollection that George Kidder was the first person who formally taught bio-chemistry. He came right at the end of the Second World War. He was an outstanding professional bio-chemist. We had joint honors programs with him. We had some students who would do their theses with him and get honors in chemistry and sometimes vice versa, and sometimes they’d get honors in both fields, but there was, beginning at that time, an interest in bio-chemistry. Then when he retired, each department hired a bio-chemist, so he was replaced by two people.
HWH: I noticed, too, today the catalogue doesn’t list bio-chemistry as a field or a discipline; it’s replaced by bio-physics. And yet chemistry is involved in bio-physics.
Whitney: Bio-physics is one of the important political developments (laughter) of the l950s. Bio-chemistry is the jealous preserve of both biology and chemistry and in those days there were big differences between the biological bio-chemist and the chemical bio-chemist. They’ve gradually merged now so it isn’t so much. But it was desired to have a program which might interest pre-medical students and which might interest people intending to go into some form of modern biology that was based both on physics and chemistry. And the Chemistry Department, if I may say so, was perhaps the biggest promoter of this venture. By magnanimously offering not to have our name included, the program was set up and I think for some time the Bio-Physics Committee had more chemists on it than either biology or physics. It varied with people’s interests.
However, another thing that was agreed upon among the departments was that bio-physics would not become a “department.” It would be a Committee that supervised the curriculum and this, we felt, for a small liberal arts college was quite important, because we had seen in other places (and this would happen especially with bio-chemistry) where there were a chemistry department, a biology department, and then a bio-chemistry department. Each one has its own budget and there is pulling and hauling-- and you observe this also in big universities. The University of California has some very bitter rivalries between the bio-chemists in one place and the bio-chemists in another. In a small college we felt that it would be better if we were all friends to begin with and we didn’t want to become enemies. So it was generally agreed that each department would allocate some of its budget for work in bio-physics, but that there wouldn’t be a separate chairman of a department with a separate budget and a separate staff and all that.
HWH: By the same token, Bob-- and I hope you’ll be candid one way or the other-- is there room in a liberal arts college for a neuro-science department or program?
Whitney: Well, that is a program that I’m not so familiar with because that’s come about since I retired.
HWH: It’s about four years old now I think.
Whitney: The big thing there was the ability to get a large grant to support that kind of a program.
HWH: I believe it was Mellon money.
Whitney: It might have been. I don’t remember but I believe that the National Institute of Health gave them a big grant. And, again, it’s my impression that that didn’t become a department as a vested interest from an academic point of view. I know that some members of the chemistry department have taken a very active interest in and participated in that; biology, too, and it’s an interesting field. I think it’s part of the increasing idea that inter-disciplinary courses are a good idea. And they certainly are.
But I think that if you have a small institution with limited funds, you do have to be careful. There was a lot of talk at Amherst about the proliferation of departments, I know, a few years ago, and there was an attempt to reduce the number of departments so as to make the College members more conscious of the College as a whole. But departments have to have a reasonable amount of cohesiveness and the free-floating scholars around have a hard time. I think that in the sciences it is perhaps easier to do this than other fields. But to have each member of the faculty have a department affiliation, with a department that looks benevolently on his enterprise in these things, is very good.
What's happened is that in these joint programs quite often it has given a student motivation to do work in chemistry or physics or biology that he wouldn’t have done on his own; and in the sciences, especially in research, motivation is the whole thing. So that it is worth putting time and money into something like neuroscience.
HWH: I was a little curious, though, I think Amherst’s neuroscience program is probably the only one at the undergraduate level. And I was curious whether enough could be accomplished for the student by having this kind of program, as much as for the teacher. Perhaps we do acquire teachers because this possibility is there.
Whitney: Yes, I think that’s true-- drawing faculty. I know that the availability of things like these programs has influenced people who were coming to Amherst.
HWH: You were involved with Four-College cooperation before Hampshire came along. Do you see any results from Five-College cooperation-- or Four-College cooperation-- that were not there before this program began?
Whitney: I can’t say that I do. The University, of course, when it expanded, became so large that cooperation with them often meant that they would let the various other colleges use their facilities, because they were so big they would have facilities the others might not have. That’s been a temporary thing, and with the changes and expansion of the University, they couldn’t be as generous as they were to begin with. So that’s been very haphazard and I don’t know too much about it. There have been joint research programs from time to time. Then Cooper Langford was here he and Casey Stengle worked together, had joint grants.
HWH: Casey Stengle!
Whitney: Yes. I forget his actual name. He is a mountain climber. They did quite a bit of collaboration and there has been cooperation with the polymer science people at the University. In the early ‘fifties there was quite a bit of cooperation. As a matter of fact I’m not sure that formal cooperation hasn’t diminished in the last ten or fifteen years
I might say that one of the first formalized Four-College enterprises, which lasted through thick and thin, was the establishment of the Four-College chemistry lecture series that began in the early ‘thirties which each college funded; even if times were hard, they’d kick in something. And that lecture series, I think, has done a great deal to promote the interest of science in all the colleges. And of course, as you know, Mount Holyoke has always had a very outstanding chemistry department and it has turned out more actual chemists certainly than Amherst has, I think, over the years. Many of them have gone directly into chemical industry, and being the one feminist institution around here in those days, they were out to show that women could do whatever men could do and do it better. But they didn’t have any man member of their chemistry department until after the Second World War. Although they had a reasonable number of girls get Ph.D.s, a great many of them went into industry as Bachelors-- but a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Mount Holyoke was a more thorough training in chemistry than anybody else around the Valley gave.
HWH: I believe the Chairman or a member of their chemistry department even now, is chairman or president of...
Whitney: Yes, Anna Jane Harrison was elected President of the American Chemical Society. She’s an outstanding chemist. And Miss Carr, Emma Carr, and Miss Sherrill, Mary Sherrill, were very outstanding women chemists. Now Mount Holyoke did something, incidentally, that you were asking about research at Amherst. We investigated an idea they were using which had been very successful, which was to hire people in the department with the idea that they would collaborate on a research program. Miss Carr and Miss Sherrill had a joint research program in the l920s in Spectroscopy. Miss Carr was a physical chemist and Miss Sherrill an organic chemist; she and her students would make the compounds and then Miss Can’s students would do spectrographic research. Then when new faculty came they were told that they were expected to research this way.
We kept trying to think of a formula for doing it, because with limited resources that was for them an extremely good thing, because they could have expensive equipment with several people using it. But our chemists were much too much individualists EVER to collaborate and I don’t think there’s a single case of two members of the chemistry department at Amherst ever collaborating, more than just friendly help with something. They were always helping each other out. David Grahame especially was a great person to help other people out, but... Oh, as a matter of fact, David and I published two joint papers but that was a very special circumstance which hardly counts.
HWH: I had that in mind to ask you, if there had been a history of collaboration in research at Amherst.
Whitney: Well I mentioned that we needed to develop physical chemistry in the ‘thirties. Our students going to graduate school were having troubles with it and at that time there were some universities that did a lot in physical chemistry, such as the University of Minnesota where I had all my work in the ‘twenties. Then I came East to Harvard, and then to Amherst, I was really astounded to find how backward both institutions were in physical chemistry, because I’d had essentially three years of fairly advanced physical chemistry and one of my teachers told us that the era of atomic chemistry, atomic reactions, was just opening and when I came East nobody had even heard of such a thing.
HWH: This was in the ‘twenties?
Whitney: In the ‘twenties, at Minnesota they were doing that. And they were doing it in California. Physical chemistry in the United States started at Berkeley and Cal Tech.
[END OF SIDE ONE, TAPE ONE]
HWH: We were talking about the various areas in which members of the faculty were proficient and those in which they weren’t-- such as your taking on thermodynamics, collaborating with Grahame, and then turning the teaching of it over to him. The question occurred to me that in some areas, some disciplines such as history, Columbia seemed to be the favorite of members of the Amherst faculty directing students into graduate work. Was there any particular connection between Amherst and other graduate schools that stood out?
Whitney: In general we tried to get the people-- who went into graduate work-- to go to places where there would be some active and probably some fairly young person. We felt that in the Depression it was very hard to get to work with the famous people (and actually chemistry was in the doldrums in many ways during the Depression) and that they should look ahead and pick out promising, fairly young people to work with. The result was they went to a great many different graduate schools. I think in Organic Chemistry, Illinois was often suggested. Illinois had developed extremely rapidly after the first World War and was far ahead of any other university in the United States. At that time they had six or seven really outstanding, fairly young organic chemists under the leadership of Roger Adams, and so we’d suggest they go to Illinois. Also, Illinois was very generous with teaching assistantships and most of the people didn’t have the money. So that that was an advantage. Being close to Harvard, there were some who went there, but not too many. I’d have to look up statistics because I don’t remember. For instance, some of the outstanding people: Bill Johnson got his degree from Harvard; Paul Bartlett had gotten his in 1928 from Harvard. So in the earlier days Harvard was responsible for some of that sort of thing. But then people would go to California, Minnesota, Brown, Cal Tech, M.I.T. and so forth.
HWH: Very few to Princeton I take it, very few to Yale.
Whitney: Yale suffered from a problem that kept people from going there. It was very expensive to go there. They had a very bad time during the Depression. Yale was financially very hard up during the Depression and they happened to run into a period where they had some quite elderly, specialized people that the students weren’t interested in. Ralph had gotten his Ph.D. at Princeton and I know at least two people who went to Princeton.
HWH: Did you, yourself, at any time have any inclination toward transferring to a university to teach at the graduate level?
Whitney: Well I made my decision when I came to Amherst. I had been headed for a Rockefeller Traveling Fellowship and after my time at Harvard, I was supposed to go to Germany and do research on this fellowship and then go back to the University of Minnesota. The people at Minnesota and Harvard had arranged for me to have this very nice fellowship. So I visualized going to Germany or Austria for a year and then going back to the University of Minnesota. Well, Harvard was my first experience away from home, actually; I’d lived at home all through graduate school and I’d done some teaching at the University of Minnesota but had relatively little genuine teaching experience. During the two years that I was at Harvard I enjoyed the teaching very much. I felt myself frustrated in the research I was doing, which was partly due to the fact that the lab was in a terrible turmoil; they had to rip out most of the plumbing and replace it during the time I was there in the new building and they were moving part of the time arid then they had this change of plumbing, so the air was filled with dust and all. That’s only an excuse. I think I discovered that my major interest was in teaching.
In any case I sort of burned my bridges and told the people at Harvard and Minnesota that I was NOT going to accept the fellowship and go back to Minnesota, but that I had written letters to inquire about jobs in liberal arts colleges. I’d heard about Amherst so I wrote to Amherst and two or three other colleges and it turned out that two or three of them offered me a job, and I thought that was pretty good. Also, the Depression was definitely coming along. The idea of going abroad to work appealed to me tremendously and so I’d thought of taking the fellowship, and then getting a job somewhere. But in the Depression, looking for a job in this country from Germany didn’t appeal to me. Fortunately Amherst gave me a fellowship to go to Germany in the middle ‘thirties.
I adopted the principle then that my major concern with research was, I’d like to do it. It was interesting. But I didn’t feel it was the thing on which I would base my career. I felt that it was important for a teacher: in order to be a good teacher you had to have your hand in it to a certain extent. What actually happened was that later I did practically all of the research that I ever published on sabbatic leaves or at times when I was away from Amherst, though I did a little here.
HWH: That’s a time, too, when you can direct your total attention to your research.
Whitney: Yes, yes. It’s very hard, unless you have something going, unless you have a very strong discipline, it’s hard to do things in little dabs.
HWH: Ted Soller was one whose interest in low-temperature physics had to be extended, as I understand the research he did. He couldn’t start it and then stop.
Whitney: Yes, that’s right. And he also worked out a very successful collaboration in the Physics Department. When he came back from the Radiation Lab at the end of the War, he got very generous financial support from, I imagine, the Office of Naval Research at the time; later it became the National Science Foundation. But the government was so slow to set up NSF that the Office of Naval Research actually administered tremendous amounts of money as the NSF later on did. That was how Skip Dempesy and Joel Gordon happened to come to Amherst, and also Bill Fairbank, who later went to Stanford and became a very brilliant researcher.
Incidentally, Bill Fairbank’s career was kind of the opposite of mine. He started out thinking he wanted to be a teacher, but he got more and more absorbed in research and finally decided that he just didn’t care very much about teaching, so he went into essentially research full-time. He went from here to Duke, I believe it was, and then Stanford, and is a potential candidate for a Nobel Prize someday I think. Maybe he won’t get it, I don’t know.
But anyhow, the Physics Department had a collaboration which was extremely successful and as far as I know-- I haven’t paid much attention to it in the last ten years-- but I do know that they kept working away at this joint project in which each person took a part, including Bruce Benson, whose part in it didn’t turn out to benefit that project but made him into an oceanographer.
HWH: That came out of mass spectrometry.
Whitney: Yes, he had a mass spectrometer. He was so fussy about building it and he wanted it to be so good, that by the time he got it, got satisfied with it, they’d long since gone by the point where they could use it. However, it turned out to be the ideal instrument to analyze sea water.
HWH: Bob, you’ve been on the faculty under five presidents. You were appointed by President Pease, then came Stanley King, Charlie Cole, Cal Plimpton, Bill Ward. Can you think of any one of them as being more sympathetic to or supportive of chemistry than another, or science as a whole for that matter?
Whitney: I think Amherst has been fortunate in not having presidents who seem to play favorites with departments, and certainly I have never felt that there was any president who discriminated against the chemistry department, Of course Pease was only here for a year after I came, but I always felt that he was interested. I had some interesting talks with him. He was a very, very quiet, scholarly person, but he had a wide range of interests, and I certainly didn’t have the feeling that he was out to build up big Classics and cut down the sciences. Another thing though that I didn’t mention earlier in talking about the sciences: Geology at Amherst has carried the ball a lot for science, going way back. When I came Freddie Loomis was probably THE most famous scientist at Amherst.
HWH: And he didn’t succeed but he came late in the career of B. K. Emerson. And Emerson was really the follower of Hitchcock though there was an intervening...
Whitney: Sure, I forgot Emerson. As a matter of fact, the first time I ever heard of Amherst in a scientific context, was in the second number, I think it was, or second year of Chemical Reviews which later became a very big and famous and valuable chemical journal. It published review articles on important topics in chemistry and it started in the middle ‘twenties. While I was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, I read a number of Chemical Reviews that had an article by B.K. Emerson on the Helix Chemica. One of his many interests was in the periodic table of chemistry, the chemical elements. He had constructed a helical periodic table. He said if you arranged the elements on the turns of this helix as it ascended, that you would then come to the right points with the elements above each other and the turns of the spiral would resemble each other. With what was known of the periodic system at that time, it was quite a decent idea, and so much so that some of the editors of Chemical Reviews, in starting their journal out, devoted a lot of space to B. K. Emerson’s ideas on the periodic table.
An interesting follow-up to that was that when we were moving from the Physics and Chemistry buildings over to this new Science Center, Bob Romer, who was Chairman of the Physics Department at the time, invited me to come over and look around in the attic to see if there was anything there they were going to throw out that I might want. And up in the attic of Fayerweather I found B. K. Emerson’s wire model of Helix Chemica.
HWH: I know Ted Soller used to speak of the equipment that Ebenezer Strong Snell had accumulated and of which Ted was Curator,
Whitney: Didn’t he give that to the Smithsonian finally? I think that he did before he retired. I asked Bob Romer about the helix. I said, “Don’t you want that?” He knew B. K. Emerson, his father knew B. K. Emerson. He said, “Throw it out!, as far as I’m concerned.”
HWH: Well I understand that B. K. and...(his name escapes me)...that B. K. Emerson was one of the first who thought of Geology as a separate subject, though he was hired at first as part of the Biology Department. He was one of the first to consider Science as a discipline rather than proof of the glory of God, as Seelye did, and Hitchcock did. That’s why it seems odd, with that background, that science at Amherst has matured and developed as it has. But one of my early questions to you was, not to try to date this emergence enctly, but to try to give a general idea of when science was “for real” at Amherst. You said you thought possibly Elijah Paddock Harris DID begin it in chemistry, and certainly Messieurs Doughty (particularly) and, I guess, then Ralph and you carried on the tradition of sophisticated, serious chemistry. But going back to the other earlier question. Pease was a Classicist, Stanley King was an attorney and also a businessman, Charlie Cole a social scientist, you might say, Cal Plimpton an M.D. and scientist, Bill Ward-- I think I’d put him in between a social scientist and a humanist. Harold Plough felt that Stanley King was the most supportive of Biology of the presidents he’d served under, and that included also in his case, Meiklejohn. Do you have any feeling of Stanley’s presence or fine hand in helping chemistry develop?
Whitney: Well, he certainly was a strong supporter. He had been Chairman of the Trustee Committee on Buildings & Grounds when the Moore laboratory was built and in that role he and Professor Doughty worked very closely together in designing the Moore Lab, and his interest in chemistry through THAT was extremely strong. He wasn’t the one, nor was President Pease the one, who determined that it would be a chemistry lab. Mrs. Moore had her own ideas as to what she wanted to give the College and the President had suggested buildings that seemed to be more necessary than a chemistry building, but when George Plimpton, Sr., who was Chairman of the Board of Trustees at that time, offered her a bill of fare to choose from and finally got to a chemistry lab; she said, “That’s just what I want.”
HWH: And endowed it!
Whitney: So that isn’t to be ascribed to any president. I know that Professor Doughty, although he was an anti-Meiklejohn person, felt that Meiklejohn was very favorable and treated the science departments favorably. He thought he was making a mistake in being so strong, in fact, for research at the exclusion of teaching. George Scatchard was not an experienced teacher and very much with his head in the clouds; he was very good for a few students who really already knew about it. Chemistry and physics, if I remember, all through that period, were required; you had to choose one or the other of those as the freshman science. I don’t believe you could take any other science than chemistry or physics in the freshman year. Because Physics was harder than Chemistry, Chemistry got the enrollment. But Stanley King, having been Chairman of the Building and Grounds Committee, was intimately involved with laboratories and he knew about the building of laboratories, and he helped the Biology Department get additional funds for improving their laboratory facilities. So that I could understand why Harold Plough would feel that Stanley King, as no other president, had the background or interest in that sense, since Stanley King had built one laboratory before he became president of Amherst, so that made him rather unique.
As far as general support, I always felt that Charlie Cole supported chemistry. Then we needed additional staff, as enrollments grew and the trend in the College was for teaching loads to go down, the Chemistry Department expanded; I think the big expansion of the Chemistry Department was during Charlie Cole’s term in terms of personnel.
As regards the type of president, Amherst, I think, has oscillated between two types: the scholar and, you might say, the businessman type more interested in physical affairs; Pease was totally the scholar and Stanley King was definitely the businessman. He pulled the College through two very tough times, either one of which could have sunk the College: the Depression and the Second World War. I’m not sure that the Second World War wasn’t actually harder than the Depression. But Charlie Cole was interested in the faculty and he was, I would classify him as the scholar type. He did a lot, he was a strong supporter of the New Curriculum, although it should also be said that Stanley King was the one who appointed the Long-Range Planning Committee for the New Curriculum, and he supported it and gave Gail Kennedy leaves of absence to go and study things and so on. But anyhow, Charlie Cole was very much interested in building up a strong faculty and worked very hard on that.
HWH: You recall, too, Bob, that Charlie was Chairman of the Alumni Committee on the Future of the College, which is probably why he was selected-- among other reasons.
Whitney: Yes, that’s right. Yes, I’m sure that played a very important part in his appointment. Then, when Cal became President, he saw the need for more endowment as the big thing, so although he was a scientist and a researcher and all that, I’d classify him very definitely in the businessman side of things. And I think that the increase in endowment that happened there, was an extremely important thing. So that you have one kind of regime and people get used to the good points and the bad points of that, and then a change comes along and then they see how it’s like to have it the opposite way.
HWH: Do you have any thoughts on the strong points, the weak points of chemistry at Amherst? Would you care to comment on that?
Whitney: Well, I think that the Department has some very smart people in it. One thing that’s needed in Chemistry is intelligence, and it’s very hard to make up for a lack of that. You have to really be on your toes. It is the nature of any science in which research is being done that it changes with time. And I think that it’s bad to have a department in which, however good the members may be, it becomes institutionalized and the program becomes frozen. That has happened in a number of liberal arts colleges, where, when the members retire, all of a sudden it is necessary to build up all over again. And I think the overlapping of the ages of the members of a science department is important. That has happened at Amherst, both by design and by chance, so that from a sort of technical point of view, I think that Amherst has a good Chemistry Department, having a distribution of interests and people who are in fields that are very promising for the future. I’m not sure that it is possible to compare it to other departments at Amherst, I don’t see any reason to say that it is head and shoulders above the others.
I think another unfortunate thing for a liberal arts college is to have it said that it has put all its eggs in one basket, and it’s just doing one thing and doing it well-- like Alfred University which specializes in Ceramics, for instance. That’s one kind of a program to have, and it’s quite defensible, but I think a liberal arts college really ought to cover a number of fields.
HWH: It seems to me that this building that we’re in, is a magnificent building. It certainly must be attractive to young scholars, too.
Whitney: Oh yes, yes, it’s an important thing-- and the kind of facilities that the College or grants have been able to provide.
Another advantage is flexibility and informality. I think that Amherst, in general, and the Chemistry Department in particular, have provided a rather informal sort of intellectual atmosphere. We have things happening that aren’t necessarily pre-programmed and certainly not required. I think a big thing about the Chemistry Department of which I can speak with familiarity, and I think the same thing happens to others, is the chemistry seminar, which has traditionally been held on late Friday afternoon.
You would think that that was a time when people wouldn’t come around, but the sort of people who are wanting to come and give talks at Amherst are of fairly high calibre. I think the younger members of the department over the years have always been interested in getting people to come; and the students have gotten a lot out of this. The number of undergraduates and visitors who will turn out on Friday afternoon is frequently very amazing.
HWH: How far back does this go?
Whitney: There was a faculty self-improvement club in the early ‘thirties in science; it had people from physics, chemistry, mathematics, and astronomy, and the object of it was to get ourselves up on Quantum Theory, which was very new and we knew nothing about it at that time, so we took a book and everybody got a copy of the book. It was Atoms, Molecules and Quanta, and we would meet every week and eat doughnuts and drink coffee, and occasionally discuss this book a little bit.
HWH: On Friday afternoons?
Whitney: No, that was when we had all the other people, it wasn’t on Friday. No, in fact, the chemistry seminar was kind of an outgrowth of that; other people had pre-empted the more desirable afternoons, so we took Friday, because that’s what was left.
HWH: The students followed that up with, you know, “Thank God it’s Friday.” T.G.I.F.
Whitney: I think seminars in Chemistry were going on from the middle ‘thirties on. I remember one time, Bailey Brown gave a very good series; in fact I’m not sure it wasn’t the thing that really put the chemistry seminar on its feet. We wanted to know something about statistical mechanics because that was a big thing in chemistry. It was part of the process of making chemistry more quantitative, more theoretically appealing, and handling molecules and the assembly of atoms or molecules, which you have to treat by statistical methods. If you use naive statistical methods you don’t get anywhere. So as a branch chemical statistical mechanics was developing. Well, Bailey Brown gave us a whole series of talks on the background of statistical mechanics and he went to the trouble of applying it to some chemical problems. And that was very fascinating.
As I say, it started as a faculty self-help program, but an occasional bright student would hear about this and want to know if he could come. In other words, it never was something that students had to go to, it never became a course, but it was a kind of mutual improvement society for the faculty and I think it is somewhat that way to this day. The students are invited guests. There have been times when different honors program directors have required the students to take notes on certain seminars when they knew that a certain speaker was coming, and they’d say, “Now, this is something that you need to know for your honors work.” But in general it’s been informal.
Another thing that has been done, in which Amherst is a leader, is the providing of funds for attendance at scientific meetings. The amounts of money in those days were pretty tiny, but Stanley King saw that it was important for the scientists not to be isolated. It wasn’t just for scientists, although I remember hearing people fume about how the scientists were being given preferred treatment by Stanley King in the ‘thirties because they got to go to meetings. I think they just were suddenly struck by this; if they’d thought of the idea and asked, I think he would have done the same thing-- and I think he DID, actually.
Maybe that’s not a good topic to get into in detail. But anyway, keeping in touch with the world is an important thing in a liberal arts college that’s isolated, especially. That is, however, one of the better things about the Four-College or Five-College cooperation. It may be only psychological but you don’t feel isolated.
HWH: Bob, I can’t say this exhausts what I might ask you, but it does cover pretty much the things I had in mind. There may be something you’d just like to say off-hand that we haven’t touched on.
Whitney: Well, as I said, it would take a lot of careful consideration to construct a history of everything that went on. When you get into the larger departments, the expansion of things in the last twenty-five years has been constant and interesting and complex, so that just reminiscing about it you’re much more apt to either make mistakes or miss important things.Well this has been very helpful and certainly interesting to me and there may come something out of conversations with others that I’ll want to come back and check out with you. But I appreciate your taking the time.